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‘We either have fun learning or we give in to despair’

PC(USA) Co-Moderator, UCC Capitol Hill advocate talk formation, faith and the future

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace is Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly (2022).

LOUISVILLE — Over the weekend, the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins and the Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C.  — together with National Capital Presbytery — hosted two women of faith who regaled a Zoom audience with stories of the decades they’ve spent advocating for and ministering to God’s people.

One of Hawkins’ guests — Sandy Sorensen, director of the Washington Office for the United Church of Christ — had only to climb a flight of stairs to the PC(USA)’s Washington Office to participate in Saturday’s hour-long discussion, which also featured the Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace, Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly and the executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Philadelphia.

Sorensen grew up in a UCC church in suburban Chicago, where she had an “off and on journey with the church.” During her undergraduate studies at Grinnell College, she served a time during field placement with a Presbyterian church in Newton, Iowa, during the height of the farm crisis in the 1980s. “I had the experience of sitting with families through their loss. It was transformative for me,” Sorensen said. She went on to the Yale Divinity School and arrived at the UCC’s Washington Office in the summer of 1990.

Born in New York City, Santana-Grace is “a descendent of the [Puerto Rico] diaspora,” she said. “I am indeed a cradle Presbyterian, of the Hispanic Presbyterian thread. The church formed me.”

In college, “I was an avowed practicing agnostic,” marrying “someone who would become a Presbyterian clergyperson.”

She herself earned an MDiv at Princeton Theological Seminary, where she recently completed a 12-year stint on the seminary’s board of trustees.

While still in high school, Sorensen’s church had a youth minister “who was very justice oriented, and that changed my life,” she said. “The idea that justice and church could be together was always with me.”

Sandy Sorensen is director of the United Church of Christ’s Washington Office.

So were two themes that have served her well throughout her long career: servant leadership, which she learned in part from her mother, a “quiet church leader,” and accompaniment, which she saw during the early 1990s in her then roommate, a student at the Howard University School of Divinity, who was “doing a lot of work with people living with HIV/AIDS. It was amazing to bridge cultural differences and hear their stories,” Sorensen said.

Santana-Grace said family members encouraged her to go to college. “People thought we mattered,” she said.

“It’s so important for young people to have that experience that you matter, that I’m interested in what you have to say,” Sorensen said in reply. “I am so aware of that now — really listening to young people.”

Better together

Both leaders spoke fondly of their ecumenical experiences.

“Our denominations are not a sign of, ‘Look at us!’” Santana-Grace said. “We are supposed to be people of the gospel, and we let disagreements become our idolatry.”

Sorensen called her denomination’s commitment to ecumenical and interfaith work “part of our DNA as the UCC. We are a merger of four faith traditions. ‘That they may all be one’ has always been part of our vision. My life is so much richer and deeper through hearing other ways of telling the story and experiencing different rituals.”

Santana-Grace said when her father died, “it was my Jewish friends who sat shiva [with her] without making a big ritual out of it,” she said. “They came over every day. These are relationships we relish today.”

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins is Associate Director of Advocacy for the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries.

How, Hawkins asked the two, can a church that believes in reconciliation pay a role today?

“I take people back to Hebrew Scripture,” Sorensen said. Leviticus and Deuteronomy, she said, show us “ways of ordering our common life together. Really, that’s what politics is. I try to help people distinguish between partisanship and the political part, making decisions and sharing resources. With that understanding, we can tackle tough issues.”

Now in her 33rd year serving the UCC’s Washington Office, “I am more certain than ever” about “the merger between the pastoral and the prophetic. The work is about accepting people and being prophetic people, saying, ‘This s not who we are called to be.’”

“Look at what our churches have done during the pandemic. They have redefined who they are in the community,” Santana-Grace said. “We need to equip local leaders to be pastors who have the moral courage to pivot and be prophetic in the world. We need the prophets. We need to be uncomfortable. It makes me squirm, but it also makes me question who I am called to be in a way that’s relevant and faithful.”

The Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace, Co-Moderator of he 225th General Assembly, delivers the benediction during worship Sunday at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Also pictured is the Rev. Dr. Sarah Johnson, the church’s senior pastor. (Photo courtesy of the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins)

Santana-Grace said she’s committed “to equip local clergy, many of them in small churches, to understand it’s a hard vocation and they need to take care of themselves. If I do nothing else with the time I have, if we help clergy with this new season, what a gift it will be!”

“It’s ingrained in clergy to take care of others,” said Hawkins, himself a parish pastor for more than two decades before coming to the Office of Public Witness, “and we often don’t care for ourselves.”

“I realize more and more that when we’re running on empty, I know I am not giving my best self,” Sorensen said. “I want that for me and for the community around me.”

A look ahead

“I don’t know the future of denominational identities,” Sorensen said. “But at the heart of it is the call to love one another. How we live that out may look different, but that’s at the core.”

What Santana-Grace finds encouraging is that “people keep saying yes even though they don’t know what they’re saying yes to. Here is the good news: I really think we are in a season of possibility. We either have fun learning or we give in to despair.”

Churches and worshiping communities in the Presbytery of Philadelphia have, like so many others, become creative during the pandemic, according to Santana-Grace. One worshiping community is using a presbytery-owned building to provide “structural resurrection to a ministry responding to youth and others in an economically challenged neighborhood,” she said. A small church is converting its Christian education building into a place for foster children who are aging out of they system. “Churches are re-examining their purposes,” Santana-Grace said.

When Hawkins asked about best practices for empowering youth and young adults, Santana-Grace had a ready answer.

“We need to authentically listen,” she said. “They are doing the work of the church without framing it that way.”

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